Before contacting technical writers

This page contains general information about technical writers and creating documents. It will help you to analyse your existing setup and to start thinking about your requirements. Then, when you talk to technical writers about your project requirements, your discussions will be more productive.

To get your project off to a good start, think carefully about what you want to achieve and why you want to use technical writers.

  1. Why do I need a technical writer?
  2. What special skills will a technical writer bring?
  3. How do technical writers differ from other writers?
  4. Should I get comments about our existing documents from users?
  5. How do I justify spending money on our documents?
  6. When can technical writers start to contribute to a project?
  7. Employ or outsource?
  8. Creating a project brief
  9. How do I find a technical writer?

Why do I need a technical writer?

'Anyone can write', so why do you need a technical writer? We cannot stress enough that good technical writing is far more than putting words on a page and being able to use a word processor.

How many times have you seen technical documents in which the language is so tortuous that it's impossible to understand what the text means? In the same way that putting paint on a canvas is not painting, putting words on a page is not writing. Good writing encourages readers to continue reading. It's clear and it leads readers from what they know to what they do not know.

In addition to good writing skills, a technical writer analyses the users' problems and designs documents to resolve those problems. For many projects, this is a significant part of the technical writer's work. We have all seen documents that state the obvious and which use many pages to explain something that could have been explained to the average reader in a single sentence. A good technical writer explains things from a reader's perspective.

What special skills will a technical writer bring?

Isn't it better for technical specialists to write technical documents? In some cases, yes. However, usually they are not the best people, because they do not have a technical writer's specialist skills. A technical writer:

How do technical writers differ from other writers?

Copywriters, marketing writers, creative writers and technical writers—all have excellent language skills at the sentence level. They use the right words in the right place.

'The right words' depend on the type of document. For example, a marketing brochure typically plays on emotions and uses words of persuasion. It may contain vague words, such as 'improve' and 'increase'. That's fine for a marketing document, but it's not right for a technical document; those terms should be quantified.

On the other hand, do not expect a technical writer to be able to help you with your marketing material. Certainly, some technical writers can write good marketing material, but not necessarily.

Should I get comments about our existing documents from users?

Managers often say 'our documents are fine; we know this because no one ever complains about them'. However, managers are the wrong people to ask.

People who use your documents are a good source of information about what the documents should contain. Ideally, technical writers perform 'audience analysis' early in a technical writing project; this audience analysis includes obtaining feedback from readers. For example, do they want documents designed for viewing on a screen, printed documents, or both?

How do I justify spending money on our documents?

If your help desk gets many calls, if customers complain and if your staff continually do things incorrectly, you may well have problems with your documents.

If you have problems with your existing documents, or if you don't have documents, you need to evaluate whether to spend money on new documents.

Evaluate your expected return on investment. Simplistically, if the expected return is less than the investment, don't produce documentation. It may be cost-effective to fend a few support calls, rather than spending money on documentation.

On the other hand, good technical documents can lead to reduced support costs, increased sales and customer satisfaction. Of course, if you charge your customers for support, but not for documentation, reducing support calls may not be your goal, which is why only you can decide the costs and benefits of producing documentation.

When can technical writers start to contribute to a project?

Involve a technical writer as soon as possible. For example, in software development, a technical writer can help with interface design, especially with the words on menus, error messages and warning messages.

For many projects, a lot of planning is needed before writing can start. For example, a project to create policies and procedures might require deciding on how documents should be delivered (intranet or as printed documents). Other projects will often require writing standards and style guides.

Often in a project, the technical writer is the only person in the team who is looking at the whole product from the user's viewpoint. Therefore, the writer can spot inconsistencies early. A survey from Aberdeen Group shows that it is best to involve technical writers early in a project.

Employ or outsource?

You have decided that you need a professional technical writer. Should you employ a technical writer, or should you outsource your documentation project to an independent provider or agency? There is no single correct answer — it all depends on your situation, but we can raise some points you should consider.

Definitions

Employee, in-house, freelancer, contractor, independent, self-employed, agency worker, bum-on-seat contractor … different people use different terms. We use:

Workload and project duration

If a project is short (less than a few months), you are probably better off outsourcing the project. On the other hand, if there is much work (a year or so), you will probably be better off financially by employing a writer.

On long projects, if the workload fluctuates a lot, an independent technical writer is likely to be a better option than employing someone or using an agency contractor.

If you employ people, you need to ensure that they are working all the time, otherwise you are wasting your money. An agency contractor is not good when the workload fluctuates, because there is no guarantee that the agency will be able to supply you with the same person who previously worked on the project.

An independent provider can usually guarantee continuity of personnel. So, for example, your independent writer might work solidly on a project for a few weeks, then spend the next few weeks working two days a week. There might be a break of two months and then a final push to get the product and its documentation to market. That flexibility and continuity is difficult to obtain from agency contractors.

Scope of work

If the scope of work is constantly changing and if you are outsourcing the project, you will soon see your costs rise above the initial budget (no sane independent will offer fixed-price work when the scope cannot be defined). We suggest that is a good thing. It will focus your mind on the essentials. You won't commission work that is not important.

On the other hand, if you employ someone, you won't notice the wasted work until months or years later. One technical writer we know was employed for 18 months on a good salary. His employer threw away half his work (projects were poorly defined, the scope was changed, projects were abandoned part way through and products were changed before reaching the marketplace).

Assuming that you have decided to outsource your technical writing project, your next task is to create a project brief, which we discuss in the next section.

Creating a project brief

Having thought through what you will need before contacting the writers, you will already have a basis for assessing them. Questions you might consider include:

Feed your conclusions into the brief that you give to the writers you approach. An accurate brief will help them to produce accurate proposals. Give enough information to enable them to judge your requirements and ask precise questions to enable you to compare their responses. Include in your request for proposals:

How do I find a technical writer?

Essentially, you have two options with outsourcing:

Independent providers

To find an independent technical writer, use:

Agency contractors

To find an agency contractor, you will obtain best results if you use a specialist technical writing agency because they have a greater understanding of your needs than a general recruitment agency.

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